Creepy personalization — we’ve all experienced it.

Maybe a brand you’ve never heard of reaches out using your full name. Maybe after talking to a friend about a product, you see an ad for that product online. Or, in a more extreme scenario, maybe you live in an assisted living facility and receive a gift basket from the local mortuary, like one Twitter user’s father. Talk about creepy.

Getting creeped out by marketing efforts has become so commonplace that it’s a recurring joke online. And while people might be making jokes, that creep-out factor translates into how consumers feel about brands.

Numbers Don't Lie: We're Creeped Out

According to one InMotion report (download required), 75% of consumers find most forms of personalization somewhat creepy, and 22% said they’d leave for another brand because of creepy experiences. Even worse, one in five people said they’d tell a friend about the experience, and 10% said they’d share these experiences on social media.

Beyond that, most people feel like companies are listening in on their conversations. Brands have said again and again that it’s not happening, with Mark Zuckerberg even denying the claim under oath. Yet 55% of Americans still believe their smartphones are spying on them (Nixplay). Even if it’s not true, the damage has been done.

What’s left? Loss of trust, loss of customers and a negative impact on brands’ reputations.

Does this mean the solution is to nix personalization altogether? Not quite. Despite the potential creep factor, most customers appreciate personalization, when done right. According to one report, 52% of customers say that as digital experiences with brands become more personalized, their satisfaction improves.

But remember, there are some caveats to this. People want personalization, but they want it delivered in a very specific way.

That begs the question: What is creepy personalization in marketing, and how do you draw the line between helpful and too far? Let’s take a look at three true stories to find out.

Story 1: The Coffee Shop Eavesdropper

Mike Kupfer, founder of Highway One Marketing, a Nassau, Del.-based marketing firm, is no stranger to creepy marketing, saying it's something he talks about often with his wife. But there was one situation that he really found unsettling. "I was in a coffee shop and was waiting for my order," said Kupfer. "The barista preparing it was talking with another patron — not me — about a weight-loss program she had just started. After leaving, the very first time I pulled up Facebook on my phone, there was an ad for that exact weight-loss program."

Prior to this, Kupfer said his online activity was not weight-loss or even fitness-focused.

His take on the situation? “My best guess is that it's a combination of location sharing and cross-user history data that leads to this situation.”

He went on to explain: “Google knew from my phone that I was in the same location as that barista, and it knew that the barista had recently spent a lot of time interacting with that weight-loss program. Google made the assumption that we might have talked about it, and thus I was a promising target for the ads.”

Kupfer said that, because of his line of work, he has a pretty strong understanding of how and why he’s being served an ad and, as such, isn’t often creeped out. “But I do get annoyed at over-personalization,” he added.

Related Article: Is Less More for Customer Personalization and Privacy?

Story 2: The All-Knowing Software Program

Kevin Martin of Wealth Pursuits, an online finance publication, said that how he feels about personalization often comes down to how the data is collected.

"The creepiest personalized ads I've seen are those that are shown after talking about a product. I mean just talking — no website visits, no list signups, not even a text.”

Sound familiar?

In a similar situation to Kupfer, Martin said he was out to dinner with a business associate and talked about a software program he uses.

“He hadn't heard of it before and he did not go to the company's website,” said Martin. “It was just a conversation over dinner at a restaurant. Later that night when he gets home, he sees an ad for that software on Instagram.”

According to Martin, this isn’t the first time he’s witnessed such a situation, claiming it’s “definitely one of the creepier forms of ad personalization.”

“I'm OK with being retargeted after visiting a site,” said Martin. “I'm also OK with companies doing in-depth market research to create a "scary" accurate customer profile for me. I'm not OK with my conversations being monitored without my consent.”

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: It's True: Privacy Regulations Made Personalization Better

Story 3: The App With the Hidden Ear

Feeling uneasy yet? If not, there’s one more story to get the job done.

Chris Walker, founder of Legiit, a freelance platform for businesses, shared a story where he downloaded a new app onto his smartphone, a process that, as you well know, requires agreeing to set terms and conditions and privacy policies.

“Suddenly, in the same week,” said Walker, “we started seeing Google Ads for vacation destinations and fitness/wellness products.” Walker said he spoke about those topics with friends and family, but never searched them on any devices.

Fortunately for Walker, he discovered the source of the creep factor. “I later realized that I had agreed to allowing the app to use my smartphone microphone and listen for audio signals in TV audio,” he explained. “This felt so unsettling and made me rethink how we choose to track consumer behavior so that companies can market their products and services to consumers.”

Walker said that he doesn't mind retargeting or personalization as much as some. "If there is a topic I am interested in, I would much rather see ads for those sort of products and services than random, unrelated things," he said.

However, brands that take it too far usually get the ax, said Walker. He claimed that he removed the app in question from his phone, and has no problem opting out of ads on Facebook from companies that retarget too aggressively.

The Lesson: How Brands Obtain and Use Information Matters

If you’ve made it this far, one thing is abundantly clear: people get creeped out when they feel like their privacy is at stake.

In the three stories from above, it’s important to note that the creep factor usually presents itself when there’s a cross-over from the physical to the digital, i.e., people talking about a topic and then seeing ads for those topics online, or people visiting a store in person and then seeing targeted ads on their devices.

It seems like a no-brainer, but people don’t like brands that are intrusive and violate their privacy. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being watched and listened to all the time. But that’s the world we live in today, and as a result, consumers are increasingly mistrustful.

A 2021 Havas Group survey of nearly 400,000 people found that cynicism is at a record high, with consumers seeing less than half of brands as trustworthy. And 71% of people have little faith that brands will deliver on promises — including those surrounding data privacy.

Breaking It Down: How to Keep It Not Creepy

We know that customers want personalization; they just don’t want it to weird them out. So what, exactly, is non-creepy personalization?

In a 2022 Cheetah Digital report, consumers outlined what kinds of personalization they find cool instead of creepy:

  • 73% of customers like getting recommendations based on past purchases
  • 54% of customers like getting an email reminder about an item they left in their cart

Compared to the personalization tactics people find creepy, it might not seem like a lot of information. But it offers two very important insights:

  1. People don’t mind personalization efforts based on information they knowingly give a brand.
  2. People like personalization if it provides a direct use to them, like helping them find products they might like.

It all boils down to this: brands that want to survive in this digital-first age — where consumers are more skeptical and savvy than ever — must rely on more customer-focused ways to collect and use data.